Monday, June 19, 2017
IT WAS hard to believe--like a dream come true. Even to this day, there is something elusive about Juneteenth. It took the longest time for it to become the officially recognized holiday it now is in state after state, including, at last, Arkansas. For all the years before, it was more of a folkway than a holiday, more custom than law, more word-of-mouth than official proclamation.
Word-of-mouth. That's how it started.
Juneteenth came up out of Galveston. It was on June 19, 1865, that Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, U.S.A., landed there with the news that The War was over and, by the way, Mr. Lincoln had freed the slaves two and a half years earlier. News didn't travel quite as fast those days. They had ships and horses, but no smartphones.
Just think of how nebulous this piece of intelligence must have seemed at first! The slaves are free, you say? All of our hopes have come true? Free at last, thank God almighty, free at last? Why don't you tell us another one.
But the news--the promise--made its way up from Texas as the Union troops spread out. Slowly, ever so slowly, word passed among the slaves--that is, ex-slaves, now freedmen. It would take a while, a long while, for the glad tidings to filter through every plantation this side of the Mississippi. And even longer--some 140 years--for Juneteenth to become an official state holiday in Arkansas.
Through all those years, Juneteenth was an almost underground holiday. One day every June, the downtown streets and squares of small towns in this part of the South might suddenly fill with black folks, mystifying the white ones till they remembered: Oh, yeah, this is their holiday. Their holiday. As if freedom were not indivisible, and justice for all. It took us in Arkansas a long time to recognize it, but freedom is never just theirs, it is ours. For here is a holiday that should unite all, just as freedom does.
Freedom doesn't always arrive on a given day, like July 4, 1776. It doesn't always come with signs and wonders as the waters part and a Promised Land beckons. Freedom isn't always a pillar of fire by night; sometimes it's just a pillar of cloud afar off. And always, always, there is a wilderness awaiting before it can be realized, its promise confirmed in law. And sometimes freedom is more a mundane legal process than a voice from the heavens proclaiming liberty throughout the land. Has there ever been a duller, more technical and legalistic declaration of freedom than the Emancipation Proclamation? It is still more celebrated than actually read.
How strange: Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed two messages of near-biblical power to American history in the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, gave us an Emancipation Proclamation that has all the romance of a real estate deed, and not a single stirring line. As president and commander-in-chief, Mr. Lincoln seemed more concerned with making a legal case for freedom than in issuing some grand manifesto. He was a constitutional lawyer, too, and he knew his strongest legal argument for freeing the slaves was as an exercise of his war powers. But his lawyer's careful language took much of the drama out of the abolition of slavery.
Which kept it legal, thank God. There were plenty around who were giving him enough grief in the courts, thank you, so he didn't need to gum up the gears with flowery talk. Not this time. The issue was too important. To everybody.
Now it's up to later generations to provide the fun and games, music and recitations, speeches and concerts, food and fireworks that should go with any festival of freedom. It will take more than official proclamations to make Juneteenth a holiday for all. But it can be done. Because not only is Juneteenth connected with all-American ideals like freedom and independence, but it's got . . . food! Nobody of any race, creed, color, religion or national origin is going to turn down barbecue. This kind of barbecue has something else going for it: It comes with a side order of good will.
Nobody knows the trouble Juneteenth's seen, but now that it's being celebrated formally in Arkansas, its prospects are promising. The holiday's past may be vague, its origins contentious, and its spread uncertain. But like many a good thing, Juneteenth is there for the taking, and celebrating. By all.
What Juneteenth needs is a primer, a book of common prayer, a standard order of service, a hymnal, a narrative that can be recited by all around a festive table. Every Juneteenth. A slim but shining collection of gospel and folk songs and civil rights anthems bound together with the undying words of lovers of freedom from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., from Wilberforce to Lincoln. Juneteenth needs a book to go with the holiday. For every Passover deserves its own Haggadah, its own narrative and order of service. This festival of freedom waits only for its own book to be assembled. From a wealth of material: freedom songs, official proclamations, and not just historical documents but folk songs and folk wisdom. And then how it will shine!
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine . . .
Editorial on 06/19/2017
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